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Restoring ties with the Syrian regime puts Hamas between a rock and a hard place

GAZA CITY, GAZA - APRIL 30: Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza speaks during an iftar dinner of Hamas during holy month of Ramadan in Gaza City, Gaza on April 30, 2022. ( Ali Jadallah - Anadolu Agency )

Ten years after leaving Syria in the wake of the violent regime crackdown on the popular revolution against President Bashar al-Assad, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, has apparently decided to restore ties with the regime in Damascus. Although no official statement has been made by the movement in this regard, cautious leaks have been made to the media via unnamed sources.

"A significant development has occurred recently in the issue of the relationship between Hamas and Syria," said one such source. "It has been agreed to reopen direct communication channels and conduct serious and constructive dialogue to prepare the way for the restoration of mutual ties."

A credible source within Hamas showed me a document stating that it had decided to "restore ties with Syria in a way that serves the movement's political views and reinforces the resistance programme, as well as in a way that contributes to the formation of a front that undermines the normalisation plans intended to liquidate the Palestinian cause."

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According to the head of the movement's Arab and Islamic Relations Office, Khalil Al-Haya, "There were discussions within Hamas at home and abroad regarding the restoration of relations with Syria. The end result was that it was agreed to seek ways to do so."

Syrian regime officials have not commented on the reports about restoring the ties with Hamas, but the move was hailed by Iran, which mediated on this issue, and Hezbollah, Assad's relatively local ally. The question is, why has Hamas restored ties with Assad and his regime now?

It is clear that opposition groups in Syria are unhappy at the decision. Nevertheless, Hamas said that decision makers within the movement believe that the restoration of ties with Damascus will serve the Palestinian refugees in Syria and help reactivate them to be part of the Palestinian resistance. Indeed, Hamas itself would boost its position within the so-called "axis of resistance", reinforcing its position against Arab states' normalisation of ties with the Israeli occupation.

In my opinion, Hamas has restored its ties with the Syrian regime under massive pressure from Iran and repeated requests from Russia. Iran wants a good relationship with Hamas to use as leverage for Assad and his regime among Sunni Muslims in the region who support the Palestinian movement, especially those in Arab countries. Russia wants Hamas to get closer to Moscow's ally in Damascus as part of its response to the fact that Israelis are fighting alongside Ukrainians against Russian troops.

It is notable that senior Hamas leaders have made a number of visits to Moscow recently. This rapprochement with the Russians will not be without a price, though. A strong relationship with Russia consolidates the movement's international position, so the leadership has to be ready to meet at least some of Moscow's conditions. The only thing that Hamas can do in this regard is to restore ties with the Syrian regime.

Hamas has been monitoring the reaction of the Arab governments towards the Syrian issue and their relationship with the regime. The movement cannot afford to adopt a radically different policy, and with a number of regional capitals reopening links either formally or informally, restoring ties with Damascus would seem to be a logical and purely practical step for Hamas to take. Even the Arab foreign ministers discussed the return of Syria to the Arab League at their meeting in March. With Syria suspended from the league for more than a decade, the umbrella body's Secretary-General, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said the issue should be decided "bilaterally between Arab countries" and if "a consensus exists" then Syria will return.

It is this, I think, which pushed Hamas to change its position despite the clear opposition of its supporters at home and abroad. The many Hamas members and supporters to whom I have spoken have largely condemned the move; there is definite anger that the movement is seeking to restore its relationship with the Assad regime.

"The Syrian regime has killed about 300,000 Syrian and Palestinian refugees, so what shall Hamas do with this regime?" asked one. "How will it show its face to the Syrian people and the Palestinian refugees?"

One well-known journalist said that he will continue supporting the Palestinian resistance, represented by any faction. "However," tweeted Yasser Zaatra, "we will not accept the normalisation of ties with the Syrian regime which shed the blood of hundreds of thousands of our Syrian brothers and displaced hundreds of thousands others."

Such a reaction on the ground suggests that Hamas is caught between a rock and a hard place. Where does it go from here?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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